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Four tips from an epidemiologist to stay safer as Michigan begins to reopen

Ryan Malosh, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said monitoring reopened areas of the state for new COVID-19 cases will be important as restrictions on gathering loosen.

Remember the question, “Doing anything fun this weekend?” You might not have heard it much these past few months, as the COVID-19 public health crisis and executive orders have kept many people at home and practicing social distancing.

But now that Governor Whitmer has lifted the ban on gatherings of ten or fewer, and as Memorial Day approaches, there are new questions: how, specifically, do we do anything fun this weekend? Should we still wear face masks and stand six feet apart? Can the kids have a playdate? Is anyone ever going to have a potluck again?

We checked in with epidemiologist Ryan Malosh, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, for tips on how to safely gather with loved ones during a pandemic. Here are four of his recommendations:

Maintain personal space and hygiene practices

Malosh said enclosed spaces with large groups of people are some of the highest-risk settings for infection, so keeping your distance helps minimize risk. He added that it’s also important to continue following other basic safety precautions.

“We know that wearing masks does seem to help, at least a little bit, particularly if a person who is ill is wearing a mask. But I think it can provide some benefit for everybody. Things like taking extra precautions like washing our hands more, not sharing food, those types of things, are all going to reduce our likelihood of being infected, given the fact that we’re now able to be in contact with other people again,” Malosh said.

Take a multi-layered approach 

Malosh said these basic virus-prevention methods are each important, but it’s the way you layer them together that has the most impact. It’s a little like a package of Swiss cheese, he explained.

“Each intervention is a slice of Swiss cheese. It’s got holes in it. The virus can get through in certain ways. But if you stack those layers of Swiss cheese up, the holes will eventually all be covered. … And then eventually, you’ll be blocking a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more, and … I don’t think we’re ever going to reduce risk down to zero with these types of interventions, but we can significantly reduce the risk of transmission if we use multiple interventions,” Malosh said.

Talk to your kids

It’s one thing to follow these safety precautions yourself, but quite another task to talk them through with kids who just want to play with friends. Malosh, a parent himself, said setting up clear boundaries might help.

“It’s really hard to convince your four-year-old [and] your six-year-old to stay six feet away from their friend—the first thing they want to do when they see them is give them a hug. So, those are the kinds of things that—as adults, we maybe have to take some extra precautions with setting up playdates, and go through the guidelines, go through the rules in advance. This is the kind of playing that’s okay, and this is the kind of playing that we maybe shouldn’t be doing,” Malosh said.

Adjust to a new normal

Malosh said he was diagnosed with leukemia in November 2018 and, as he’s been recovering from a bone marrow transplant the following spring, he’s already had to be careful of getting sick. He suggested that the habit of assessing risk of infection might be something we’ll all need to adopt for a while.

“I'm used to thinking about what would happen if I got an infection. I’ve gotten very mild infections—things that most people wouldn’t even notice—in the last year that put me in the hospital for five or six days, so I take extra precautions. If I’m going to go out some place where I know that there’s a chance that somebody will be sick around me, I’ll wear a mask. I try to avoid going out as much as I can—I’ve been doing that for over a year now. … So, yeah, I’m a little bit used to it, but I think everybody is going to have to sort of come around to that sort of thinking as we re-emerge from our isolation here,” Malosh said.

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